Presidential Perspectives
Presidential Perspectives: The State of Foreign Student/Scholar Advising

Supplemental Information

The American Educational Administrator: Examining Some Assumptions

Gary Althen
NAFSA Newsletter, February, 1992

One way to defuse the negative feelings that sometimes arise from our intercultural interactions is to become more conscious of the assumptions that underlie our reactions and behavior. This article concerns some assumptions that American educational administrators bring to their work, assumptions that often contribute to misunderstanding and discord when administrators interact with students and scholars from abroad.

Many of the negative feelings that arise between foreigners and Americans on a campus result from the fact that foreign students and scholars do not share the American staff members' assumptions about the institution itself, the way it works, and the staff members' roles in the institution. On a moment's reflection, we realize that there is no reason to suppose the foreign students and scholars would share our assumptions on these matters. How could they, when they have grown up in places where organizations operate in very different ways?

College and university staff members may not realize how much power students consider them to have. Staff members control a number of goods students want: grades; academic credit (especially that which might be granted as a result of studies at another institution); financial aid; jobs on the campus; certifications about various matters (for example, being in good standing, being a full-time student, needing a certain amount of money for education and living costs); positive letters of recommendation; and, more abstractly, recognition or respect for the student's efforts and accomplishments.

When students approach American college and university staff members for these or any other goods, they bring with them unspoken and usually unconscious assumptions about the staff member and the institution. Often those assumptions are at variance with the Americans'. Here are some assumptions that American college and university staff members are likely to make, and are likely to suppose--incorrectly--that everyone shares:

  • My institution is legitimate, with recognized and accepted reasons for being and ways of operating.

  • My institution's rules, procedures, and requirements are reasonably related to the achievement of its purposes, and are generally fair and logical.

  • I got my job as a result of demonstrating my competence.

  • I have the knowledge and information I need to do my job.

  • My ability to do my job is not a function of my age or gender.

  • My purpose in doing my work is to carry out the tasks in my job description, so the overall institution can carry out its larger responsibilities, and so I can earn an income.

  • It is appropriate and expected that students will approach me if I control some good they want.

  • When students approach me, I will treat them fairly and reasonably, as long as they treat me politely (according to locally accepted concepts of politeness), make clear what they want, and tell me the truth. (There is a truth.)

  • It is efficient and effective to use forms, form letters, and written information sheets to carry out routine procedures, and being efficient and effective is desirable.

  • In determining whether a student warrants the good he or she is seeking, I will objectively match the facts of that student's situation with the (written) policy, standards, or criteria I am responsible for implementing. (The important things--such as rules, policies, procedures, criteria, and deadlines--are written down, and people should read them and know what they say.)

  • When I give my decision, the student should accept it, since I have applied reasonable rules and standards to the facts of the case, and made an objective judgment.

When our assumptions are spelled out like this, we can quickly see how many there are, and how fragile is the web they weave. If a student has just one assumption that is not in accord with those listed above, the web begins to disintegrate. For example, a student might assume I got my job as a result of family connections and not competence. Some foreign students make that assumption because that is the norm in the country where they spent their formative years.

Students and scholars from abroad bring with them a wide array of assumptions on the matters listed above. A few examples:

  • American higher educational institutions are not really legitimate. After all, secondary graduates with poor academic records can almost always get into one, since there is no standardized entrance examination to screen out the academically inept. American postsecondary institutions grant academic credit for such things as bowling, high-school level mathematics, and science courses that students in some other countries complete by age 15.

  • A true education involves studying a limited number of topics in depth. The "liberal arts philosophy" just wastes students' time (and tuition money) on superficial, irrelevant courses.

  • Younger people and females are not entrusted with significant decision-making responsibility. I have to see the boss, who is nearly always a male.

  • What's written down is not as important as what passes personally between two human beings. You can bend the rules if you like me, or feel sympathetic towards my case.

  • If a matter is important, I should go personally to talk to the administrator involved. The telephone is not an appropriate way to carry out important business.

  • If I'm asked to fill out a form, nothing is likely to happen.

  • "Facts" and truths" are relative, and besides, what matters most are people's feelings. I need to gain the human sympathy of staff members who have something I want. They should take the time to talk with me.

  • It is very important to treat people politely. Being polite requires me to speak softly; keep questions and disagreements to myself, so I don't put the other person on the spot; avoid insulting the other person's intelligence by spelling out in detail what I want; and, perhaps avoid mentioning certain unpleasant "truths."

  • I don't ask for things lightly, and when I'm denied something I think I need, I will keep asking until I get it. If you won't give me what I need, I'll find someone else who will.

College and university staff members will be able to reduce the frequency and intensity of their negative reactions toward foreign students if they reflect on their own unexamined assumptions and realize that foreign students and scholars (1) cannot be expected to share them and (2) have their own assumptions, equally unexamined and equally "reasonable." Discussing their divergent assumptions with foreign students and scholars is a further step toward more harmonious interactions.

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